Create A Better Virtual Event With These Lessons in Planning

August 26, 2020

Linda Baker

Linda Baker is president of Conference Managers, a firm she founded 30 years ago to help association events with site selection, housing, logistics and more. She leads a team of experts who help clients create powerful experiences for their event participants.


A tremendously intense spring changed everything we thought we knew about planning powerful event experiences. As event organizers, we have scrambled to reimagine our in-person events to make them work on virtual platforms this upcoming summer and fall season. My team has helped many clients make this transition and here’s what we’ve learned in the process:

Virtual takes time and flexibility to do well.

There are no shortcuts when it comes to virtual. Since it’s so new to many people, it is best to prepare for more “hand-holding.” It’s also a long process to bring key stakeholders up to speed with the virtual world. Therefore, your sales team should plan to spend additional time and effort educating potential exhibitors and sponsors on what they can expect from investing in your event and how it will work.

Along these lines, it probably seems clear that you can’t shrink the planning timeline. If you already have your content readily available and organized, we recommend starting the planning process at least four months before your virtual event to ensure a valuable experience for attendees. It will certainly take longer if your content hasn’t been established.

Finally, be open to changing the dates and timeline of a previously planned in-person event. Events do not have to be just three or four days – consider offering your content for three or four weeks.

Develop more budget scenarios than you would for an in-person event.

To give you a sense of the numbers, we have seen the following averages:

  • Attendance registration revenue for virtual events is between 0–70 percent of your in-person event revenue
  • Exhibits/sponsorship revenue for virtual events is between 25–50 percent of in-person event revenue when there is a strong emphasis on sponsorships.

On the expense side, technology platforms can cost anywhere from $25,000–$100,000 depending on live streaming capabilities. Of course, you will be eliminating many typical expenses for venues and services you’d normally have for an in-person event. Run the numbers using many different registration rates and attendee counts to find your ideal scenario and set goals.

Don’t overanalyze the technology.

While it might seem counterintuitive if you’re unfamiliar with virtual platforms, you should limit the time you spend on researching different platforms. Here’s why: the demand for certain features is outpacing the capabilities and performance of the technology. Don’t spend too much time trying to find the exact fit for your organization. Instead, make it easy and review just a few options to get the lay of the land. If the event management system you currently use offers a virtual event solution, go with them.

Pick a platform that will deliver a positive ROI for your exhibitors and sponsors. If you want to sell virtual exhibit booths and virtual sponsorship opportunities, select a platform that offers these as part of their virtual conference solutions. Don’t select a platform, like a learning management system, that says they can provide them but only offers workarounds.

Most importantly, with any platform you choose, conduct training and rehearsals on the software so speakers and exhibitors aren’t flying blind.

Rethink your event content and program.

In-person events don’t translate directly to virtual, so you’ll have to reimagine your event flow in a whole new way. One key change you should make is to break up your content to make it easily digestible for attendees. Remember, virtual attendees have short attention spans and tend to start multitasking quickly. 

You should also invest in professional video production so that attendees have an enjoyable experience when consuming the content, whether live or on-demand.

Triple your marketing and communications messages.

It’s essential to send attendees a “know-before-you-go” email that includes technical details, schedules and networking opportunities. It’s also nice to send daily recaps with highlights and links to recorded videos once the event is underway.

When marketing your virtual event, communicate what you are offering and how attendees, speakers, exhibitors and sponsors alike will benefit by getting involved. You should also outline their time commitment upfront so that they are prepared to engage. Also, don’t forget to reach out to speakers and exhibitors so that they know how things work. They will likely need more help than they would for an in-person event.

I’m proud of how our industry has rallied in the face of adversity and designed virtual events that are keeping their respective industries going. With these and additional lessons learned, virtual events will only get stronger from here.


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